When planning your day in port, remember this important rule of family vacations: If the kids are happy, adults will be happy, too. Dragging a reluctant child shopping or on an all-day tour of historic sites is a sure way to turn your epic adventure into an epic fail. Find an activity that kids and adults will both love, and you'll get loads of positive feedback -- or at least a grudging acknowledgement from your hard-to-please teen.
Appropriate shore excursions can vary by age and interest, so we've broken out our favorite types of kid-friendly cruise activities by age group. Many of these excursions can be booked directly through your ship, but plenty of them can be arranged on your own, sometimes saving you money. Some require nothing more than a walk or quick cab ride to a local beach, zoo or attraction.
You just want to relax, but your toddler has no such plans. A kid-friendly beach with chairs, clean toilets and some shade is your thing. You can chase them through the waves and even find time to lie back, drink in hand, toes in the sand, while the kids spend hours playing just a few feet away. In this case, paradise comes cheap. A day at the beach is probably the least expensive shore excursion if you can walk, shuttle or cab to a nearby sandy strip.
No, you can't take your kindergartner on most museum tours, but there are ways to see the sights while minimizing meltdowns and maximizing good times in port. A short horse-and-carriage, tourist train or boat ride will let adults see the highlights while kids marvel about their stylish transport. Or, look for family-focused sightseeing tours with activities for kids, such as Disney's "Highlights of Rome for Families," which allows you to explore Vatican City and the Colosseum with a puppet show in between to entertain the littles.
A visit to a local aquarium or zoo is fun for the family, while providing information about local wildlife. Plus, you'll see some of the port city or town on the drive over, or can choose a tour that includes an additional sightseeing stop or two. Some popular options include the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, the cage-free Singapore Zoo and the Maui Ocean Center in the Hawaiian Islands.
Little ones not quite ready for snorkeling can explore the ocean on one of the many glass-bottom boat rides or dive deeper aboard a submarine ride, operated in ports throughout the Caribbean and Hawaii. Read reviews first because these tours can offer incredible views of underwater sea life -- or offer limited visibility due to murky waters, which can lead to bored and whiny children.
Older elementary school kids who are comfortable in the water are old enough to try snorkeling, either from shore or from a boat. It's best to start somewhere with calm water. Tours typically provide equipment, or you can rent it for the day in port (or back home, if you want the kids to get comfortable with the mask and snorkel before your trip.) Even if your child is a confident swimmer, it's a good idea to have them wear a flotation device since groups can get spread out in the water.
Parents search for "teachable moments," while kids would rather take a pass. Fun-filled excursions to explorable destinations -- forts, castles, aircraft carriers or aviation museums (think Pearl Harbor) or re-created historic or native villages -- will ensure a history lesson isn't a snooze. Education is more fun when you can climb, touch and run around. And everyone loves an old cannon. If you're going on your own, rather than with a structured tour, look for special events, such as a dance or music performance or some type of demonstration, that will attract their attention.
An amusement or water park might top your must-do list, but letting your kids burn off their energy on roller coasters and water slides might also lead to their favorite vacation day ever. Choices range from braving Disney World or Universal Orlando on a cruise that stops at Port Canaveral to exploring the quintessentially Danish Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen or getting wet at a water park in Cozumel. If you're lucky, all the action means that everyone will crash out for an afternoon nap back onboard, giving parents some peace and quiet.
Some children enjoy art and history museums, but others need to be coaxed with more kid-friendly attractions. Do a little online research, and you'll find some creative museums that will engage your brood for at least an hour. For example, the Miraflores Visitor Center by the Panama Canal offers a 3D movie and viewing terraces over the Miraflores Locks, while the Vasa Museum in Stockholm displays a restored 17th-century warship. Or perhaps your kids would prefer the Pirates of Nassau museum in the Bahamas or the Salem Witch Museum in Massachusetts.
Wildlife encounters are great way for the whole family to enjoy the outdoors. And in places like Alaska, wildlife is so plentiful that some tour operators guarantee sightings. It's nice to know you won't be wasting your hard-earned dollars. Whale watching trips are available in many cruise ports, including in Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and Australia. Other fun tours include swimming with sting rays or dogsledding (or just playing with baby sled dogs).
Many Caribbean resorts allow cruise passengers to buy passes offering all-day access to resort amenities like pools, lounge chairs and water sports equipment. These are great for slightly older kids who want a variety of water- and sand-based fun. The most well-known resort for this is Atlantis, close to Nassau in the Bahamas. You'll find pools, water slides, river rides and aquariums. For much less money, look for a local resort that offers day passes with access to water toys like kayaks, pedal boats or water bikes.
Even if you aren't certified, some excursions allow you and your kids (ages 12 and older -- check at the time of booking) to try an introductory dive with an instructor. A few cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, will even arrange for you to get PADI certified on a cruise.
Water-loving tweens and teens not yet ready for real dives can try snuba instead. Part scuba diving, part snorkeling, this underwater sport involves hooking your mask to an oxygen tank that floats above you, so you're never far from the surface. Snuba is offered at plenty of warm-weather ports in the Caribbean and Pacific. (Age minimums vary should a younger sibling want to join the fun.)
A surf lesson can be fun for the whole family with older kids if you're cruising to a beach destination with big waves, such as Hawaii or Australia. You'll have more success and more fun if you've got an experienced instructor helping you out. For calmer waters, or teens not quite as daring, standup paddle-boarding is a fun alternative to other water sports and is offered in a variety of ports worldwide.
For teens and tweens who love to cook, kid-friendly cooking classes and culinary tours can be a winning recipe for a good time. They've also got the necessary ingredients for a delicious multigenerational excursion that gives you a taste of the local culture. Options might include making chocolate in the Bahamas or pasta in Italy.
Nature-based excursions with an adrenaline-charged bent are a great way for teens to enjoy the outdoors while burning off excess energy. Ziplines are a popular choice, available in ports across the world. These fast-paced cable ride excursions last from a few minutes to a few hours, and the best parks have multiple ziplines and other treetop challenges, such as swinging bridges or ropes course-style traverses.
Other options include hiking (anywhere from the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to Pulpit Rock in Norway) and climbing the cascading waterfalls of Dunn's River Falls in Jamaica.
Imagine boarding a helicopter or small plane and landing on a fjord or glacier. No one will be plugged into their iPods or checking their phones on this ride. These excursions are not cheap, but if you're looking for an extreme adventure, this is it.
The filming locations or backdrops for popular movies often become major tourist attractions, and many are accessible by cruise. Your movie-obsessed teen might get a thrill of setting foot where their favorite movies took place. You can tour the filming locations of "Lord of the Rings" on New Zealand's South Island, "Mamma Mia!" on the Greek island of Skiathos and "The Sound of Music" in Austria (on a river cruise), to name a few.
Let the good times roll by renting a bike in port, or go on a guided tour. It's a great compromise between a sightseeing excursion and a more physical activity. Some tours have age or height/weight requirements, so make sure your kids (especially younger or smaller tweens) meet the criteria before you book. The best tours stick to bike paths or less trafficked countryside destinations; biking in a city can be a bit dicey with kids.
We've helped identify the great-for-kids options. Now let us warn you away from shore adventures (beyond the obvious brewery tours and wine tastings) that generally don't appeal to small fry.
Any description that includes the words "unlimited free rum punch" or the equivalent is a tipoff that the outing wasn't designed with children in mind. If a sailing excursion or pleasure cruise does not emphasize activities like sightseeing or snorkeling, chances are that drinking is the main event. These fun cruises are typically suited to adults who want to mingle and party hard.
To most children, being dragged through Nassau's Straw Market or St. Thomas' jewelry shops for hours is not going to make Mom and Dad popular. Save it for when the children are in the kids' club -- or for another cruise.
Even children who like lighthouses and museums are going to balk at hours of stops and starts on a motor coach, especially if they're zipping by sandy beaches and inviting blue waves. If you really want to sightsee, consider an excursion that tacks a few stops -- at, say, a botanical garden or a shipwreck museum -- onto an activity-based outing on a boat or beach.